Rethinking resolutions

In the American tradition of self-improvement, I sorted through my many goals and promoted two to the rank of New Year’s resolutions: (1) lose a pound a week until I’m at a healthier weight and (2) use the word “awesome” less in conversation (perhaps instead I’ll find things to be “epic,” “wondrous,” or “brilliant”). Success would mean better overall health and a snappier vocabulary than my 7-year-old son’s.

Of course, I used the typical approach to making New Year’s resolutions—meaning I chose more than one big goal, devised no plan of attack, and focused exclusively on myself. And being overly ambitious and not very strategic are two of the reasons most people (56%) fail to keep New Year’s resolutions. According to University of Scranton psychologist John Norcross, who tracked resolvers for six months, you have a better chance of keeping one resolution than many. So I’ll table my “awesome” goal to focus on losing weight. (Maybe I’ll pick up that one again later. Until then, many things will continue to be awesome. Maybe even totally awesome.) And I will get more specific about increasing my exercise and decreasing my pasta intake.

So, say you streamline your resolutions. That makes you more likely to be successful, but it does little to help other people. Selflessness and giving are what help us live more fulfilled lives, according to Tom Rath and Jim Harter, well-being researchers at Gallup. For this reason and many others, I believe we’ll have a better year if we expand our New Year’s resolutions beyond ourselves to include the needs of other people.

So how do we get beyond me thinking to we thinking? One way I will try is by reaching out to friends and family to ask how I can support their resolutions. That will make them more likely to stick with their goals in two ways. First, it requires them to clearly articulate and publicly commit to their goals. That public commitment creates a mental link between the people they are now and the future self they are developing with their resolutions. Second, accepting my offer allows them to outsource some of the hard work required to make a life change.

Not in the habit of making resolutions that focus on others and your community? The good news is that your daily life is filled with clues about which we resolution is worth making. Start by examining the feelings you stuff down on most days—the ones you can’t deal with when you’re too busy, too distracted. You know that annoyed twinge you experience when you see a problem no one is doing anything about? Or the pang that comes from seeing someone being left behind by life? Those feelings signal when and where you need to step into the life of someone who needs more hope. Here’s how you can intervene:

• Turn wishes into hopes. A hopeful resolution goes beyond wishing by including a clear goal, multiple plans for achieving it, and the wellsprings of support you will need to stay on track. Notice when you think or say, “I wish someone would do something about that” or “I wish that problem would go away” or “I wish that person would catch a break.” Then, make one resolution to address a nagging problem in your community or to directly help a person who is stuck.

• Recruit friends to help you stick to your resolution. You may need to borrow their hope when confronting the problem that concerns you or their help when assisting someone in your community. You and your friends will give each other energy as you refine your plans and work to keep your resolution.

• Make one visible change that makes your work on the resolution known. Grab attention for the sake of garnering more resources. When other people see change is brewing, they are more likely to help or at least get out of your way.

My own we resolution for 2013 involves standing up against what my family believes to be an injustice. A popular new television reality show depicts our my family’s cultural heritage and homeland in a derogatory way affecting the way a large group of proud people is seen by others across America. So, we resolve to protest the way the show’s portrayals of an our ethnic group and ask the production company to change its show’s misleading title and altering some of the its content. We are recruiting hundreds of friends to share their concerns about the program. And we are will post this resolution on a new Facebook page dedicated to explaining detail our concerns.

When I asked friends and family to take what I called the “Ripples of Hope Challenge,” I was heartened by their eagerness to make 2013 about improving the lot of others, not just their own. Many resolved to improve a school or the broader education system. Kelly, a suburban mom of two teenage daughters, decided to take on Virginia’s student testing methods because she believes the state’s approach overtests students and undermines their progress in school. “I have been wanting to take on this issue since last year because I absolutely believe it is killing hope and engagement in our kids in Virginia,” Kelly said after describing a 6-hour Algebra II exam, failed by nearly half of the state’s students, that she believes “broke the spirit” of many high schoolers. Kelly and her high-school senior Shelby want to do something to improve Virginia’s testing culture. They plan to join other educators and parents in calling for a 3-year moratorium on Virginia’s state testing while better practices are developed. In the spring, they will lobby other students and parents for support and take their concerns to the state board of education.

Many people told me that they want to make the lives of children a little better in 2013 and were planning a we resolution to make it happen. Marilyn, who like many of us is still struggling with the school shootings in Newtown, decided to recruit her daughter and all of her 4th grade friends to reach out to the 4th graders at Sandy Hook Elementary. “I want to start a project—kid to kid—to help Sandy Hook kids feel hopeful about going back to school,” Marilyn said. She plans to consult with her daughter’s teachers, a school counselor, and a play therapist and to reach out to families at Sandy Hook to find out what would benefit the children most. Once she has outlined a project that could work, Marilyn will share the plan with the parents of her daughter’s classmates.

Now, what is your we resolution? As you consider who you can be in 2013, do more than think about yourself. What if we all got better at making resolutions that we’re actually likely to achieve and that make us feel great in the process? You can both indulge in a personal resolution and think beyond yourself. If you respond to those urges to help others with a resolution to do so, you can spread hope in ways that change the world around you. Your efforts, big and small, can help solve local problems and bolster others whose resolve has been weakened. Who knows—you might realize that the more you attend to the we, the better life becomes for your version of me.

About the Author

Shane J. Lopez Ph.D.

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., Gallup Senior Scientist in Residence and Research Director of the Clifton Strengths School. His book, Making Hope Happen will be published in March 2013.

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